RedEye

Manual Cinema mixes puppets, projectors, and live music

Blinds were drawn.

Lights were killed.

A string section settled into its seats. This was Halloween night 2010. Playwright Drew Dir and performer Sarah Fornace were having a party. They lived in Ukrainian Village then, in a first-floor apartment. With a few artist friends, they had recently started an unclassifiable multimedia company named Manual Cinema. Its goal was admirable and large: Manual Cinema wanted to create a new medium. But it still wasn't much of a company and hadn't performed often. And so, once the party was humming along, the guests were asked to step outside, onto the sidewalk. Because Manual Cinema had a treat for them.

Everyone — party guests, neighborhood hipsters, trick-or-treaters passing by — gathered beneath the window. The company had written a Hitchcockian drama full of doppelgangers and lighthouses. Designer Julia Miller had built cardboard puppets. Musicians Kyle Vegter and Ben Kauffman wrote the score.

The music started.

And the show …

Projected on a window shade.

Silhouetted searchlights swept.

Silhouetted surf crashed.

Lightning snapped. A puppet of a haunted woman sought relief in a fun house. More remarkable: Scenes unfolded as if in a movie, with close-ups and dissolves and a variety of camera angles. It was like watching a dark animated film, but instead of years of filmmaking being shown months after production, Manual Cinema was making its new film here, right now, in real time. A gothic tale of loneliness and ghosts, entirely sculpted in shadows. With a live soundtrack. Dreamlike yet grounded, abstract yet accessible. On the sidewalk outside the window, superheroes, pirates and zombies applauded the magic.

Manual Cinema was less than a year old then, but that performance was exactly the kind of bewitching, intimate shadow puppet show the company has built its growing and unlikely reputation on — a reputation for marrying an ancient medium and contemporary pop sensibilities so thoughtfully that to describe Manual Cinema as just a shadow puppet show is to say Pixar makes cartoons.

"The first reaction to us is always the same," Fornace said. "They ask, 'How are you doing what you are doing?'"

It's an understandable question, though I suspect when audience members ask this, what they really mean is: How are you using shadow puppets to approximate the kind of recognizable cinematic conventions familiar to any movie audience? How are you creating fade-ins, pans and depth of field?

On overhead projectors?

In the years since that Halloween party, quietly, steadily and in an under-the-radar way, stories of the group's hard-to-define genius spread. So effectively that Manual Cinema finds itself at a turning point: As many artists and institutions want to know the answers to those questions as want to work with them. Indeed, even a partial list of its upcoming commissions and possibilities would be the envy of much larger arts groups: an installation for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, a music video for OK Go, online shorts for celebrated "Vampires in the Lemon Grove" author Karen Russell, upcoming performances at the Detroit Institute of Arts, a residency at the Museum of Contemporary Art (and subsequent new show for the museum).

There's also the company's starring role at the University of Chicago's Studs Terkel festival, "Let's Get Working," on Saturday: Manual Cinema partnered with National Public Radio's StoryCorps to perform a series of live shorts adapted from StoryCorp's huge archive of everyday people telling stories about their lives. Indeed, in tribute, their show opens with a hobbling cardboard Studs puppet recounting a harrowing airport memory; it's a StoryCorps interview with Terkel, but Manual Cinema adapted it into a Kafka-esque psychodrama, with cardboard puppets mixing with live actors, planes gliding onto runways and Terkel delighting a giggling baby.

All in shadow.

"Initially you hear 'shadow puppets,' and you don't know what to expect," said Maya Millett, the StoryCorps producer who hired Manual Cinema. "But the minute you actually see their work, any hesitation completely dissolves in the face of what is basically this elegant understanding of cinema and a totally original creation."

So sought-after has Manual Cinema become that its founders are training a touring company, which has wasted no time in booking shows. (It makes its debut May 16 for Chicago Children's Theatre at the Ruth Page Center for Arts.)

Mention Manual Cinema to stage professionals around Chicago who have seen the work of this still-obscure company and you hear rhapsodic accolades: that its founders are naturals, that the group is a blockbuster in waiting, doing everything right, maintaining a low profile, worrying more about building a body of work than branding itself. You even hear that it's not so pie-in-the-sky for the group to be naming Pixar and Jim Henson — cultural institutions defined as much by storytelling as by technical innovation — as role models, that it's sound reasoning from an ambitious group going places.

Said Andy White, artistic director for the Lookingglass Theatre: "I don't usually do this, but the first time I saw them I sent an email to my ensemble, begging them: 'See Manual Cinema.' It had a literary quality, yet the cinematic language made it accessible. The storytelling was clear, yet the labor involved was clearly intense. My 10-year-old son found it thrilling, and I found it profoundly moving."

Said Blair Thomas, who knows his way around spectacles as a puppeteer and founder of the Redmoon Theater: "You can feel the cut of X-ACTO knives in the images, that handmade sensibility. At the same time, watching, you're reminded of early cinema."

There is one problem:

Manual Cinema is hard to explain.

"I say 'puppets' to people who don't know us, and you can see their brains shutting down," Vegter said. Alas, a tidy explanation is not forthcoming. Their primary tools are old-school overhead projectors. Each performance — imagine the storybook quaintness associated with traditional shadow puppetry replaced with a kind of animated film, employing the usual contemporary pacing and camera techniques — requires at least four. The image on screen is created through an intricate shuffling of puppets and backdrops between projectors, covering and uncovering the lamp lights to edit scenes.

Watching the group backstage, I was reminded of circus performers trying to keep plates spinning. Music is performed by a live ensemble (led by Vegter on cello and keyboard). Imagery and storytelling evokes both the jauntiness of Wes Anderson and the German expressionistic gloom of "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari." And the characters: a combination of puppets and live company members acting in silhouette, often wearing special masks (designed by Miller) that give faces a sharper definition against a white screen.

As I said, hard to explain.

"What they're figuring out is whether this is cool, moving wallpaper or a medium that can sustain long, poignant narratives," said Heidi Coleman, director of the undergraduate theater program at the University of Chicago. "But that's partly because there isn't anything like what they do. They are inventing something."

Actually, there is some precedent here. When I asked Christy Lemaster, director of the independent Nightingale Cinema on Milwaukee Avenue, how original Manual Cinema actually is, she cited several experimental filmmakers who shoot shadow puppets in cinematic ways. And there's the renowned 42-year-old San Francisco company ShadowLight Productions, but its shows are rooted in traditional Balinese shadow puppetry.

"Manual Cinema is more live-action puzzle," Lemaster said. To illustrate, she told me about a Manual Cinema performance she attended in which shadows suddenly pixelated and puppets seemed to stand inside video images. She was dumbfounded.

"Afterward, they invite everyone to see how it's done, and I saw this computer. They had busted open its monitor, flattened (the screen) on the overhead (projector) and run video through it. Then put puppets on top. And I was like, 'Oh, you did that. Because you guys are the smartest.'"

For the past few years Manual Cinema has performed sporadically, often at small neighborhood theaters and odd spaces. Early on, they did a week of shows at a Logan Square funeral home. That's why you've never heard of them. The first time I saw Manual Cinema perform was last fall. Halloween, actually. I had watched and rewatched several videos on their website (manualcinema.com), and the images were compelling: a young girl sitting in a satellite dish and dangling her feet over the side, a pair of swans that morphed into the hands of flirting lovers.

Nevertheless, onstage, Manual Cinema was more, one of the most engaging things I had seen in ages. The not-especially-publicized show was in the group's Logan Square office, a loft with a small stage. A musical quartet led by Vegter sat to the side. The screen loomed over a crowd of maybe 50. The company was mostly glimpsed, scuttling between the projectors and the screen.

Silent as dancers.

Trying in vain to find a chair, I settled on the wooden floor at the lip of the stage and stared upward. (Jane Beachy, an independent Chicago arts consultant, told me later it's a frequent sight at the company's performances: "It's like a magic show. People are baffled and want to get closer.") The piece was "Ada/Ava," an hourlong version of what Manual Cinema performed on that window shade four year ago. The story — a sister confronts the ghost of her twin sister — was touching and moody. I found myself oscillating between pure joy and a cheerful frustration, struggling to simultaneously pay attention to the plot, listen to the haunting score and admire the designs of the puppets and backgrounds.

At the same time, it was hard to ignore the backstage choreography required to keep so many moving parts humming: Every so often I saw a flash of the performers moving behind the screen, staring intently at the screen, working puppets that were flattened against overhead projector surfaces, cycling through overlays of scenery, flipping black cardboard up and down in front of the lamps, creating a rhythm to the editing of the story. At times a performer ran to the screen to put his shadow beside a puppet's shadow.

Other times, a character was part live person, part puppet.

Pleasantly baffling — dance, theater, music, film and graphic design, all at once.

"See, we tend to think of arts as one thing: as film, as painting, as whatever," said Peter Taub, director of performing arts at the MCA. "For this generation it's natural to work in an invented medium, to grasp that we don't just listen to music or just like dance or admire film. Manual Cinema is forward-thinking that way: They're recognizing it's an interdisciplinary world now and viewers get a visceral charge connecting dots."

Indeed, a few months later I found the members of Manual Cinema in their loft talking to local filmmakers over pizza and beer, struggling to explain how they needed videos because they are so difficult to neatly pin down. They needed videos that captured the cross-disciplinary qualities of the company's live performances. Miller lifted a laptop from the table, called up a video, flipped it around and showed it to one of the filmmakers, who looked momentarily bewildered. The video showed the group performing in front of a screen; instead of working behind the screen and projecting forward, it was projecting images back toward a screen.

"So you're on the audience side? In plain view of the audience?" the filmmaker asked.

Miller nodded. "That's how we do it now."

Later, explaining the group's decision to let audiences watch them make the show in real time, she told me: "I think there's a disconnect in the way audiences look at screens. They are forgetting what that space actually means, because they have a screen in their pockets all day. But watching images reach the screen as they are being made? Watching alongside other people watching? Hopefully, we become this reminder."

After the filmmakers left, the company went back to work. It was after 10 p.m. Vegter, who doubles as office manager for the acclaimed Chicago classical ensemble eighth blackbird, looked exhausted. Miller was hunched over a drafting table, designing puppets for the StoryCorps show. In the next room, the touring company rehearsed choreography for "Lula del Ray," the first show Manual Cinema created (and the show that will be performed by the Children's Theatre at the Ruth Page Center). A puppet bus moved toward the screen and stopped, coming into focus, the way a camera might capture a real bus. A puppet stepped on the bus. The scene changed. Then, suddenly, the screen went white. A member of the touring company poked her head out from behind the screen.

"Julia?"

Miller looked up.

"What do we do here?" the woman asked.

Miller looked at Fornace: "How did we transition from there?"

Fornace thought about it. The room became silent, and Vegter put his hand to his chin. They couldn't remember how they did it.

The history of Manual Cinema is modest and, like many fresh ideas, unanticipated. It begins with Miller, who grew up in Virginia and studied theater at Boston University. After moving to Chicago, in 2009 she met Fornace, a Philadelphian who studied narrative theory at University of Chicago. The pair met at Redmoon; they created shadow puppets for a "Swan Lake" collaboration with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. This led Miller and Fornace to wonder if they could stretch a little, perhaps apply contemporary sensibilities to a medium typically rooted in ancient traditions and fairy tales.

"We gravitated to the form because it lacked so much detail that an audience could insert themselves," Fornace said. "Mixed with a visual language everyone knows, it could be potent."

Asked to create a piece for a puppetry festival, Miller contacted Vegter and Kauffman, who were performing in a local ambient sound collective named Oh+Ah; they would write the soundtrack. Dir, Fornace's longtime boyfriend (and until recently a resident artist at the Court Theatre in Hyde Park), wrote the story, "Lula del Ray," about a young girl who travels from her Southwestern town to the big city in search of a country duo. Encouraged by the reaction at the festival, they performed it a few more times, and soon their reputation for creating a spectacle spread by word of mouth, show by show: the Oracle Theatre in Lakeview, the Charnel House in Logan Square. A collaboration between Manual Cinema, the Chicago Q Ensemble string quartet and Oregon-based poet Zach Schomburg sold out several performances at the Poetry Foundation in 2012.

"And yet, the whole time we never explicitly said we were a shadow puppet company," Vegter said. "We just did another show, then another, and somewhere in there someone said, 'Do we want to do this for real?'" Said Dir: "I think we were trying not to institutionalize it. Because maybe in a month none of us would be that excited by shadow puppets."

So the group didn't register as a limited liability company until last year. And everyone keeps a day job. Kauffman, though still a member, moved to New York for graduate school; Miller and Fornace remain part of the Blair Thomas & Company puppet theater. And yet despite some hedging, Manual Cinema grew. It added five ensemble members, then landed several artist residencies at universities. It toured with Schomburg ("They're like a family, the kind that knows how to push each other's buttons"), then made an appearance at the 2013 New York International Fringe Festival, which led to a well-received show at the prestigious Future of Storytelling summit in New York, an annual communications forum that boasts Brian Grazer and Al Gore among its advisers.

And that's how shadow puppets become a job.

Last winter the members of Manual Cinema, all in their late 20s, went on a retreat to discuss their future. For optimal isolation, they rented a home in a Milwaukee trailer park and mapped a tentative plan for the next five years. They discussed how they might actually make money in shadow puppetry, and their plan was this: residencies, commissions, touring company. Not a bad plan.

There's also money in music videos. The touring company allows them to spread the name while making new shows (Coleman of the U. of C. told me her students are clamoring to work with them, "so touring is wise"). Plus, Manual Cinema says it hasn't expended the possibilities of its constructed medium. Better yet, its collaborators agree: Patrick Eakin Young of London's Opera Erratica, which is working with the company on its piece for the Met in New York, said they're making interesting theater, "but I could also see a way that it could transition into music theater."

Or literary adaptation, Miller said.

"But there are so many limitations," she added. They need a lot of space to perform, and every image has to fit the small screen of an overhead projector. Dir said, "I doubt you'll see us create a shadow puppet 'Godfather,' but straining against what's possible, pushing for complexity, is important."

It's a wise group of artists who realize early on that innovation is often born of parameters. In fact, something I witnessed at one of the StoryCorps/Terkel rehearsals suggested that everyone should probably stop picturing them as a shadow puppet theater.

This was a couple of weeks ago in their loft. Four projectors were trained at a screen, the overlapping images unifying to offer an illusion of dimension and depth. Fornace and Miller and three ensemble members worked the array. Over speakers, an old man was telling his two adult daughters about his life, but his memory was failing and his attention tenuous. The company moved furiously to illustrate his frame of mind, cycling puppets on and off the projectors, sliding overlays horizontally across lamp lights to pan across images, fading out of a scene by lifting a background slowly up and toward a lamp light.

Frantic, but precise.

The screen showed a bird on a windowsill. The old man kept talking but lost focus. As his attention wandered and his daughters were heard trying to snap him out of senility, Miller pulled the windowsill and bird out of focus. Then she physically turned the projector from the screen, casting its harsh white light across an adjacent wall. The daughters yelled: "Dad!" And abruptly Miller spun the projector back to the screen. We saw the bird again, in focus, on the windowsill.

"You know that it's crazy to do that in this show," Fornace said. To achieve that effect, they would have to remove their movie from its movie screen. Which seemed nuts. Ira Glass would be at the StoryCorps show. Perhaps other NPR bigwigs. And yet, with ambition, grace, style and shadow puppets, Manual Cinema had just rendered the fog of old age. Miller considered the risk, then thrust a finger in the air.

"Again!" she laughed.

cborrelli@tribune.com

Twitter @borrelli

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